It’s a movie that looks to the past to ensure a better future. DIANE DE BEER reviews:
Director: Oliver Hermanus
Cast: Kai Luke Brümmer, Matthew Vey, Ryan de Villiers and many more
Script: (Based on the book by André Carl van der Merwe) Oliver Hermanus, Jack Sidey
Director of Photography: Jamie D. Ramsay
Original Music: Braam du Toit
It is the desolation and despair that hits you in the gut from the beginning (helped by Du Toit’s extraordinary soundtrack) and determines how you follow the story of a young conscript, Nicholas van der Swart (Brümmer), who not only has to complete two years of compulsory military service to defend the apartheid regime, but also faces all the horror that implies.
The title of the film sets one up to expect a certain type of film, a story that’s familiar, and then it becomes something completely different.
It’s a vicious coming-of-age story set against a particular backdrop. This isn’t simply your usual army setup where young adults are turned into fighting machines, prepared for war. It’s that, but with the apartheid regime part of every aspect of life.
The brutal power that the instructors/superiors exerted over these 18-year olds who in the protected white world of South Africa in 1980 had never experienced such harshness, is a constant reminder of what happened to those who were considered the “real” enemy.
That is made very clear right at the start when a man’s dignity is torn apart by someone he would have considered a child. The difference in their status is determined solely by their race.
It’s an horrific, rough ride because of the unjust war being fought and further exacerbated by the enmity between the English and Afrikaans conscripts as well as another enemy being fought at the time – communism. That was after all what fueled the border wars. Not only were the conscripts fighting the Angolans, they were also fighting the Cubans and their Russian masters, as every South African was reminded relentlessly. Add to that a confusion about sexuality and you have the ingredients for the perfect storm.
Hermanus explains his own relationship with the word moffie: “It is a potent and derogatory Afrikaans term for gay. It is a South African weapon of shame, used exclusively to oppress gay or effeminate. You start to hide from it when you are called this word for the first time. You begin to edit yourself. That is when you begin to pretend to be someone else for the first time. All you know about that word is that it is bad. You are rejectable, unlikable and unacceptable, and during apartheid, just like a black man or woman, you were a crime.”
Which says everything about the film. It isn’t just about a gay relationship, it’s also about a system that added to the trauma of going to the army. Here for the first time as a white conscript you were faced with unfettered power and what happens to people who would never have that kind of authority anywhere else. Most of the time, they turn into monsters – even towards their own.
It’s also what happened in a wider context all around the country when one race dominates and feels superior to another and to add weight to that, it is the law of the land with the majority oppressed by the minority. The sums don’t add up of course and the only way to control that power is by brute force and terror – as witnessed in the army.
How, as a young man having gone through this nightmare whatever your persuasion do you behave once you are released into the real world? All of these issues swirl about while you’re watching the suffering of these somewhat bewildered young men who have so much to contend with, with their sexuality adding to the consternation of the equation.
It is a beautifully made movie. It starts with the casting which was an intensive process because of the number of 18-year-olds needed. What they’re landed with is a group of, at the beginning, mostly non-professionals and yet they were given the research and the training to do an amazing job.
It’s a story dealing with little subtlety and yet told with such delicacy that the horror looms large – yet silently. You are left to experience and understand without being told. The harshness of life imposed on everyone, even those who benefited from the system, is clear but because most of what is happening is unspoken, the youngsters at the heart of the story are given no ammunition with which to explore, understand and communicate their confusion.
Some cope but barely, others give up and life simply overwhelms them.
Moffie is a film about the Other, anything that doesn’t conform to a given “norm” and something apartheid represented in its most extreme. It reminds us of what people – all with the same needs and desires – do to each other when they believe they have the right because of their race, gender, sexuality, religion, or any other distinguishing characteristic that is determined at a given time.
And we should constantly be reminded, lest we should ever forget.
*Countless nominations at the Venice International Film Festival, the London Film Festival, British Independent Film Awards, Screen International Critics Choice The Mermaid Award (best LGBTQI-themed film) – Thessaloniki International Film Festival